I Guess Mozart Just Isn't All That Interesting...

John Nesbitt's Passing Parade: The Fabulous Fraud
Director: Edward L. Cahn // 1948 [TCM]
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

I will grant you this: I do not know much more about Franz Anton Mesmer, the Austrian doctor who pretty much put the claim to the term "animal magnetism" in the late 18th century, than I have read on the Internet. I certainly, like many people might, recognize the surname, as his methods helped provide or influence the basis upon which hypnotism was laid, and which also has become known in some circles as "mesmerism." His experiments certainly came to the attention of Poe, who elaborated upon such matters by name in his classic The Facts of M. Valdemar's Case, and thus, this is where I first learned the term as a child, though it is likely I know the name from an altogether far removed source: that of the "true" creator of the famous cartoon figure Felix the Cat, Otto Messmer. The spelling is slightly different, and I am not aware of any genetic relation between the doctor and the cartoonist, but the names are filed in the same overstuffed drawer within my brain.

In recent years, though, I have had occasion to view part of a short subject series produced by MGM in the 1930s and '40s called John Nesbitt's Passing Parade. Episode 67 of this series is a well-produced 11-minute piece of "mumbo-jumbo" known as The Fabulous Fraud, portraying itself ostensibly as a cautionary tale of the life of Franz Anton Mesmer. While one must always realize that Hollywood will never tell a true story if they can pay someone to puff it up with unnecessary details, and while I am not going to defend Mesmer's in the least, believing much of his "science" as pure chicanery, I call the film "mumbo-jumbo" because that is exactly how the narrator refers to Mesmer's supposed fraudulent posturing, while the filmmakers spare every moment of their time in doing much of the same with the facts of a real man's life before the audience.

Amongst the "tens of thousands" of patients Mesmer sees in his practice, where the narrator makes clear the script's intentions to paint Mesmer as one who is getting rich and famous off of his "mumbo-jumbo" involving "glass rods and magnets," they make a point of telling us, "Strangely, though, he treated the poor free," trying hard to lend a sense of "fabulousness" to the "fraud" they have already denigrated through their introduction. This suggestion of poverty leads immediately into his dealings with "this tragic case, the case of a blind girl from Flanders," whom Mesmer cures of her malady, if only temporarily. In fact, the blind girl was Maria Theresa von Paradis, the daughter of Austria's Imperial Secretary of Commerce under Empress Maria Theresa. Hardly poor, hardly from Flanders (in fact, quite a ways from Flanders) and named after her father's royal boss, in effect. To rub salt in MGM's self-inflicted wounds, she would go on to become one of history's most notable female composers and vocalists, writing operas, and also havng works commissioned for her by Haydn, Salieri (under whom she studied) and Mozart (whose family was remarkably close to hers). In fact, MGM glosses over the Mozart-Mesmer connection twice, since Mesmer actually patronized Mozart's talents at one point, and Mozart saw fit to mockingly insert mesmerism into his opera Cosi fan tutte.

But, why use the facts, John Nesbitt? Not when character assassination seems to be the point. Oddly, the film makes short work of the eventual scientific investigation into Mesmer's methods, but there comes this moment in the film: a white cross is painted on the outside of a door, and the narrator intones, "But, at the climax of success, a stranger entered your career. That stranger was death. For, as tens of thousands were helped by mesmerism, tens of thousands also died, murdered by ignorance." I don't know about you, but I've looked all over for any sign that Franz Anton Mesmer "murdered" "tens of thousands" of patients, and even in the most unflattering portrayals, I am not seeing it. Surely, there were accidents along the way, or misdiagnoses, but if he indeed had killed that many people, he would not have been in practice as long as he was, or else he would be remembered along the lines of a Bathory or a Hitler. The film then uses this low blow to throw an even lower one: "And even your celebrated cure of blindness... failed at last... when you ceased the treatments." Ceased the treatments; Mlle. Paradis was wrested from his care without explanation, so don't give the poor doctor the blame. If you are given medication, and it fails to cure you because you stopped taking it, don't blame the friggin' doctor!

One more thing: the film opens with the shot of a creepy Universal-style forest, through which we are led upon the wisps of eerie music to a decrepit grave, with a hastily sewn cloth draped over it bearing this poem (in English):

Lived in glory,
Died in shame.
Forgotten, his story
Defiled his name.

The gravesite is given as being in Switzerland, and while Mesmer did indeed die there at the age of 81, disgraced and outcast from his former profession, having at the time being declared a fraud, his gravesite is actually in Meersburg, Germany, in the Swabian region where he was born. He has since, due to the gradual development of his early experiments into what we now know as hypnotism, become regarded as a hero, and not long after his death his gravestone was marked with a incredible three-sided monument, with a triple layer of steps leading up to the marker. None of the three sides bears a poem, and especially not the one trumpeted in MGM's passing parade of fraudulent missteps.

A fabulous fraud? The man? To a certain degree, yes... but he also did much good, and he was, by all accounts, genuine in his intentions. The film? Not so much. A fraud, yes... but there is nothing in the least bit fabulous about it, unless you take "fabulous" to mean "laden with the artifices of fable."
It seems that sometimes more epic films go to great lengths to cram just about any historical figure into their story, just to make the trip through it seem more interesting. One doesn't expect Hollywood to get anything totally right, or even slightly, but why mess with a true story that already is bursting with interesting details if they just told it straight? Especially in a series that is supposed to exist to tell true stories? It is something that I will never understand.

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